Jennifer Holberg is away today, but we are delighted to feature a contribution from Gabe Gunnink, who writes at our sister blog, the Post-Calvin. Gabe graduated from Calvin in 2014 with degrees in secondary education, Spanish, English, and writing. He is currently on a twelve-month trial of real adulthood during which time he’s working as a 9th grade Spanish teacher. (And if you haven’t checked out the Post-Calvin yet, please head on over for great stuff every day.) This post originally appeared on May 20.
On Monday, a friend who graduates this weekend asked me what the most difficult aspect of life after the Great Tassel Shift is. I had my answer immediately: the most challenging part of life beyond school is that it’s not about you anymore. If you grew up in a developed nation with compulsory public education and moderate to strict child labor laws, chances are the first twenty-ish years of your life were entirely you-centric. Parents stowed your favorite sandwich in your lunchbox every morning, teachers dedicated tireless hours to Tetris-ing information into your brain, and politicians and pageant queens continually declared you “the future.” It seems, however, that this future is brighter for them than for us. For while they have the privilege of retiring or settling into sub-par acting careers, we are yanked from our adolescent incubator and thrust suddenly into a working world that is thoroughly and disconcertingly not about us.
And there is no sphere of society in which this education-to-occupation whiplash is more drastic than in school. As a new teacher, I’ll admit I often envy my students. I watch them flit between classes like Hogwarts first-years, hear their accomplishments proclaimed in the announcements, and attend their plays, competitions, and concerts. I salivate like a leashed child at a Golden Corral, remembering the tasty buffet of classes and extracurriculars I was offered at that age. However, as a teacher, I’m no longer a Golden Corral customer, but an employee who must wipe down the soft serve machine every half-hour. It’s difficult to serve others when I still have such an appetite for personal betterment, and at times it made my first months of teaching embittering.
But now, almost a year since graduation, the ache has diminished. This is partly because I’ve learned that investing in others and investing in myself are not mutually exclusive, but mostly because I’ve learned that if they were, the former would be a far more rewarding choice. For example, this spring I’ve volunteered as a coach for my school’s track team, and on Saturday, after months of training with the kids and learning their quirks, we arrived at our regional track meet. Our school recently joined Division I, and the new standards were high. Hulking Rockford throwers tossed shot puts like snowballs and Okemos sprinters launched from starting blocks so instantaneously I suspected premonition. Meanwhile, our small stride (the collective noun I’ve invented for distance runners) quivered nervously.
One athlete in particular appeared burdened by her hopes of qualifying for the state meet in the 800-meter run. Entering with a seed time of 2:29 and a 12th place ranking, she would need either a 2:20 or 2nd place to advance. The previous day after practice we had walked twice around the track together, visualizing her race and discussing strategy. So, by the time she finally toed the starting line, my hopes had so thoroughly meshed with hers that I teetered on the edge of my first panic attack.
The gun popped, and the clock ticked. And as I zipped back and forth across the infield, I witnessed one of the most poetic things I’ve ever seen: over the next couple minutes, she executed our plan to perfection, crossing the line in 2nd place and a school record time of 2:20. Immediately, I sprinted to the finish and found my athlete crumpled like a pop can, every iota of energy spent. I haven’t felt happy or proud like I did in that moment for years.
Today (Tuesday) we had another track meet—an informal invitational that really doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, I also had plans to attend my high school choir director’s final concert tonight and could only watch one relay. As I prepared to leave, I felt an odd pooling of emotion. I considered how I was about to miss a couple of my athletes’ last races in a school uniform. Then I thought about my parents and grandparents coming to every single race, concert, and production of my childhood. Then I felt very loved. I took a final look at my little stride of runners huddled under blankets or foam-rolling their calves then turned toward my car.
At the end of the concert tonight, our director called up all the alumni in the audience to join the high school choir for the final two songs. The first was a folkloric romp replete with mandatory hoots and hollers, and it felt fantastic to be woven in with my past classmates under his direction again. The second was an arrangement of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” sung at the end of every concert. Before we began, our director asked us to spread into the aisles and hold the hands of the choir members next to us. As we sang the velvety words of the hymn, I watched our director and felt almost intimidated by the finality of thirty-eight years of teaching—continuously investing in the lives and voices of others—about to finish with a single note. I watched his snowy blue eyes drift slowly over us with practiced satisfaction as we cascaded into the final “Amen” and, for the first time, thought I might have a small taste of what he was feeling.